The Bookshelf - Reimagined

Extending the semantic metadata of physical organization to digital collections

As our libraries shift from physical books to digital media, we do away with the need to store books within easy reach. Digital libraries provide near instant access to any single piece of our media, and our "primary" need for bookshelves is removed.

Bookshelves are more than a place to stack and store books.

When we choose which books to place on a shelf, we are making a decision to publicly display the book. Some choose books that they have read and hold special meaning to them. Some choose books that they feel represent who they are, or who they want others to believe they are. Some choose books that have yet to be read, and use the visual prominence as a reminder. Deliberate curation of a bookshelf's contents is an expression of personality.

When we choose where to place a book on a shelf, we add to the metadata of the book. Not only can we see the title or the author's name, we see its relationship to its neighbors. Traditional sorting based on genre is usually possible in a digital format, but the ad-hoc taxonomies that form by placing books on a shelf are lacking. While we can sort by "biography" or "science fiction" it is more difficult to express "inspirational without being preachy for when it's raining outside" when accessing a purely digital collection. On a bookshelf, it's as simple as "the left side of the third shelf down."

When we openly display our books to guests, we provide an opportunity for spontaneous discussion and sharing. Seeing a book on a friend's shelf gives us the opportunity to examine it, ask the owner's opinions, get a recommendation for it or a similar book, and, often, borrow the book on the spot. While digital recommendation services can provide suggestions based on books you have indicated you have read or liked, they can't know that you are about to take a trip to Europe, or you were asking about a recipe earlier in the day. They certainly can't recommend anything when you are not accessing your own collection through whatever service they employ. A friend and an open bookshelf can.

Out of necessity, bookshelves have become important focal pieces for interior design. From ceiling high bookcases full of legal volumes to funky shelves that hold knick-knacks as well as books, these storage units have become artistic expressions in and of themselves.

In these ways, and more, the arrangement and display of books in our homes serves more than simple storage. It enhances and informs the experience of reading its contents.

This project aims to identify the benefits that a physical collection and display of books provides and extend those benefits to digital collections.

Through a mixture of open source software, commodity hardware, and off the shelf display technology, The Bookshelf will enable traditional physical interactions with digital collections of media. The Bookshelf is designed as a stand-alone installation, to fulfill its role in encouraging participation and interaction, but its components should be able to run on basic desktop computing equipment.

Initially, our goals are modest

  • Leverage existing book databases from services such as Goodreads and Shelfari, as well as store-specific collections such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes
  • Enhance this data with metadata to represent the physical placement and ordering of books
  • Display the enhanced data in a manner reminiscent of a typical bookshelf
  • Enable intuitive means of manipulating the cotents and the metadata with minimal "data-entry"
  • Enable the easy sharing of digital files through integration with existing storefront services as well as simple copying of files to portable media

As the project progresses, we will look towards enabling even greater interactive capabilities, multiple UI modes to support different behaviors, mobile devices, and more.

Despite being a technophile and an avid consumer of digital music and video, I have resisted the move to digital books. My bookshelves are overflowing, most horizontal surfaces in my loft are covered with books, and I have boxes of books in storage. You would think I would have jumped headfirst into digital books.

At first it was the experience of reading text on a computer screen that made it only desirable for technical information. The on-going promises and delays of e-ink based technologies were finally realized, and the first generation of portable readers were disappointing. It was either a lack of features, capacity, or format interoperability that kept me from them. Just recently I purchased an iPad 3, and the experience of reading books and graphic novels finally clicked with me. I even purchased a Nook for a more portable reader.

While these tools finally got me past the technical limitations, there was something I was missing about buying a book. I was determined to switch my buying habits to digital, but I often found myself still walking the aisles of Powell's browsing the stacks.

That's when it clicked with me. I saw the benefits of digital media, but was unwilling to let go of certain aspects that physical book collections provide. This project is an attempt to capture some of those benefits while more wholly embracing the digital lifestyle.

When the project has progressed to a demoable state, I'll provide links to the code. In the meanwhile, if you'd like more information, have ideas or keystrokes to contribute, or just want to tell me what book you couldn't do without a physical copy of, you can get a hold of me at